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What might buildings, settlements and even regions look like through the lens of Permaculture design? Part 1

This is part 1 of 2 of a transcript of a talk given by Paul Jennings to the recent SBUK Big Straw Bale Gathering. Paul has built his straw-bale family home on a ‘One-Planet Development’ smallholding in Wales (costing £12,000).


My partner and I built our first straw bale house in 2000, a very low spec Nebraska-style cabin on shipping pallets, with reclaimed windows, vigas cut on the site for a single pitch roof. It was 20m long and 6m wide, like a straw bale railway carriage; reclaimed forklift truck floor and earth rendered walls. We built it without planning permission, on the farm rented by the co-op we were members of, became something of a local cause celebre, and when we left, the building transitioned through accommodation for another couple, to an artist’s studio, and was finally disassembled, recycled and composted. £4000 build.

We’ve done quite a lot of funky self-building since, and we’re living in another straw bale cabin now on an OPD project in Carmarthenshire. £12,000 build. I’m not going to talk about straw bale building though, at least not directly. I’m going to talk about issues related to it, and how I think Permaculture design might be relevant to straw bale builders.

Asked why Permaculture emerged in Tasmania, David Holmgren said that it’s a place where nature and modernity collide, both creatively and destructively. It was a place where the ferment of the 1960s, the rising awareness, after the publication of the Limits to Growth, of the strain being placed on the Earth system, and on-the-ground resistance to environmental destruction, coalesced into a rising environmental consciousness.

Holmgren says of Bill Mollison, Permaculture’s perhaps more famous originator, that his “life and ideas epitomised a creative bridge between nature and civilisation and between tradition and modernity.”

Mollison hoped that Permaculture would provide a positive way forward, an alternative to the global society, militaristic, exploitative, polluting, and insensitive to human needs.

Between 1972 and 1974, Holmgren and Mollison worked out the shape of Permaculture as an interdisciplinary earth science with a potential for positivistic, integrated and global outreach.

Permaculture draws on influences as diverse as Eugene Odum’s work in ecology, Taoism and Buddhism, traditional tribal wisdom, Kropotkin’s anarchism, organic farming, and the work of the architect Christopher Alexander.

The word Permaculture comes from the portmanteau combination of permanent and agriculture, but very quickly practitioners and designers came to see that permanent culture must underlie all concern for the soil and the production of food.

Permaculture came with Mollison, out of the forests, with a new paradigm for feeding the world, one which remains desperately relevant today, but Permaculture is not just clever gardening, it is much more than that.

Credit: Paul Jennings

It’s perfectly possible to grow organic food with all attention to good soil care, and to plant health, indeed to a thriving agroecological system, but as part of an entirely unsustainable culture. Indeed, you can walk into a supermarket and buy organic food grown on illegally occupied land, or grown with stolen water, or with very little regard to human rights. The same is true of any aspect of modern living to which we would like to append the label sustainable.

It’s great when people cycle or take public transport, it improves air quality and reduces carbon emissions, but a cycling stockbroker can do much more damage to the Earth in a day at work than he will undo in a lifetime of donning a high-vis and weaving in an out of traffic on his bike.

Permaculture design is holistic, it emphasises relationships between elements in systems. It’s not about beating ourselves up because we’re not perfect, but it is about putting this work which we must undertake into some perspective. In one sense, Permaculture invites us to recognise that we face a multi-generational task of reconstruction and change.

Those of us in this room, even under ideal circumstances, will not see the realisation of the ecological society which both humans and the Earth require. In another sense though, Permaculture is an urgent demand. It was conceived as a response to crisis, and in the half century since The Club of Rome said that business as usual could not continue, that crisis has only deepened.

As a Permaculture designer, I could help you design a grey water system for your house, or to place a productive kitchen garden on your site, but Permaculture is better understood as a guide to whole site design, to settlement design, and indeed to region design. We might start with where we put the duck house, but if we’re not thinking about how our region might produce appropriate building materials, or how we might all farm in a way which maintains and improves the health of our shared river systems, we’re not practising Permaculture.

Just as a language is made up of words which on their own mean little or nothing, but which can, when placed together, make meaningful phrases, so individual examples of potentially sustainable design or technology, on their own are just disconnected patterns, but they can be combined to form a recognisable Permaculture pattern.

We are educated to look at solar panels and see something sustainable; we may see an electric car, or the organic symbol on a milk bottle; a wind power generator on the horizon, or homes being built with bales, and associate these things with a sustainable future. Permaculture suggests, to me at least, that these are all lower order patterns which on their own make little sense; they are fragments, as half words in a young child’s progress towards language. It’s really instructive that Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language for architecture doesn’t start with roofs or walls, it starts with independent regions.

Temperate Permaculture and buildings:

Having said all of that, of course Permaculture does have things to say about individual buildings. We start with the patterns and we work to the details, the details are interesting and vital, but on their own they make no sense.

In Temperate Permaculture, Mollison said, 50% of the work is about buildings. Traditional patterns of settlement and building design reflect just this need to cope with the weather.

We can usefully list the functions of our buildings, working in our designs towards the Permaculture principles of every element having multiple function, and every important function being supported by multiple elements.

  • Housing for people
  • Shelter for domestic animals
  • Storage of food
  • Storage for tools and equipment/implements and vehicles
  • Workshops, more or less specialised
  • Transformation of food – the bakehouse with oven, the dairy, the brewhouse etc.
  • Microclimate – buildings as windbreaks, suntraps, covered areas, shaded areas etc etc
  • Security for people and the things we value
  • Growing areas – propagation, plant support
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Social events – a huge list on its own
  • Beauty, creativity and expression
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Education
  • Play
  • Businesses

There are surely more, and we could discuss definitions, but the point is that our buildings can work very hard, much harder than the standard image of say the contemporary suburban house, abandoned in the morning only to come back to life when the kids get home from school, a dormitory in effect, with an inconvenient garden to maintain, no economy of its own, and a demographically bizarre subset of residents, no old people, no young people.

Buildings through the lens of Permaculture:

Ethics and principles are the building blocks of Permaculture design. They can be seen as a checklist, but also as a series of functions with which we want to support each other in our buildings, on our sites, in settlements and in regions as a whole.

Often taught as three ethics: earth care, people care and fair shares, really, because they are inextricably bound together, it is best from the start to see one Permaculture ethic. Unequal societies destroy their land base; societies which do not look after people create inequality; the destruction of the land base affects people disproportionately according to their wealth and power. In other words, there is no way to separate caring for the earth from caring for people or caring for people from caring for the Earth. I appreciate that this could give rise to a very long discussion. It’s enough at this stage, to understand that this is an intrinsic characteristic of Permaculture.

What might buildings and settlements look like through the lens of Permaculture design? My own take on this question goes something like this: buildings should be constructed using accessible technology, easily learned, as safe as possible, readily adopted by people of different abilities and ages. Buildings should be non-toxic (bearing in mind the need for dust masks even on ecological building sites!) both in construction and in habitation – something we consider safe when built might well be dangerous to later adaptors or indeed demolishers of our buildings; they should be both durable and then adaptable, in the final analysis, probably compostable. There should be potential in our buildings for site self-reliance, in food, in water, in energy; our buildings should be beautiful, not in the opinion of Prince Charles necessarily, but in the opinions of all of the creative people who build them and use them; they should be customisable, and have the capacity to evolve through long centuries; buildings must be affordable, supporting equality and providing material security for young and old; buildings then should support the vision of the society we want, and they should make sense in the landscape, oriented in every sense to fit. Built from local materials in old or new bioregionally sensitive vernaculars, our buildings should not only not push at planetary boundaries, they should actively help to repair the planetary boundaries we have crossed.

Quite a manifesto, but in itself probably containing little that is unfamiliar to this audience. What may be more interesting then, is how Permaculture design might help us towards these goals.

Credit: Paul Jennings

Whole site design:

All of us as self-builders tend to focus very much on the building. We need to move into it, to stop paying rent, or to stop living in a caravan; we need to get the budget for the build under control, or the budget is already blown.

One reason that a transitional building, or an evolving building can be an advantage is that it can allow us to create a design which will better integrate buildings and site, or land use, rather than segregating them. The idea of a building built once, finished and then moved into, is a relatively modern one; and one which arguably doesn’t sit all that well with naturally changing human needs.

What we look for when we start whole site design, including integrating buildings, is beneficial relationships between elements, or parts if you like, of our plan. In Permaculture design we talk about good relative location. In fact, if you take it as read that you will try to understand the functions of the elements which you are designing for, then much of good design for ecological functioning is about relative location.

In Permaculture design we start with the slope of sites which influences the flow of water, of nutrients, of cold air, of work and life, and links to well-designed access and how to lay out paths and tracks.

We consider aspect and the way it influences solar gain, shade, where we want light for buildings or plantings, the weather we are exposed to, which links also to the Permaculture design tool – sector. Sector surveying and design is about the energies coming on to our site, and flowing through it. This is analogous to the flow of energy into an ecosystem. When mapping sites using sector, and following careful and prolonged observation, we record prevailing winds, cold winter winds, water flows, floods, wildfire risks, the flow of wildlife, of people and vehicles, of light and shade, and potentially a whole host of other energies. If we conceive of our site in the abstract as a circle, then energies coming on to the site are mapped as sectors or segments.

Credit: Paul Jennings

In terms of design outcomes, the proper application of these tools will always save energy, should save money, and may save lives.

There are many other factors taken into account during what Geoff Lawton calls mainframe design, not least soil and site biodiversity; of course the resources and the desires of the people involved; and the legal and wider social context of the development.

What we expect to see in new developments arising from this process is mid-slope placement, below wooded steeper slopes and above the floodplain; often houses at the keypoint where the convex slope of classic s-shaped landscapes meets the concave lower slope, work which recognises the varying soil qualities of slopes and lowlands; reduced exposure to winds and weather; landscaping and planting which slows water flow and radically reduces risk of dangerous flooding and erosion.

Many Permaculture strategies make use of modern techniques combined with the oldest patterns of land use and settlement. If you get the chance on your way home, see how many mid-slope farms you see, pay attention to where old settlements occur in the landscape; think about how a farm which runs from a ridge down to a river traditionally made use of its land.


Next week, in part 2 , we will see how Paul connects permaculture principles to buildings be and how to design for a rapidly changing world of extremes.

The transcript was first published on

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Saving the Planet through Permaculture….and Zoning Laws/Building Codes?

A Lesson in Building So It Won’t Last


One Comment

  1. a number of good theories and ideas, very few practical details regarding implementation of those ideas for a person with little building construction and design experience, like myself. nice photos of gardens, with little explanation regarding how and why things were done in the manner chosen. and is black plastic being used in the garden?! never something i would use, impossible to clean up and recycle, at least for me, and i find plastic remnants in the soil to be an enormous hassle. never able to adequately remove easily. and i am starting to refuse to use plastic for anything, i find it too toxic and too exploitive of the earth, with its accompanying carbon footprint, not sustainable, and finding it on a site that espouses sustainability to be a bit hypocritical. i have been following this site for quite some time, and so far have been seriously disappointed regarding its lack of practical, usable to me ideas. but that is another matter. i am continuing to seek new ideas that can be useful to my situation, here in northern michigan, with its climate related limitations. enough said for now. this note is long enough. there is very little point in belaboring the point.

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